March 12th, 2013 could very well be the most crucial and fragile day in the future of the Buccaneers franchise. Through his first four seasons as the team’s General Manager, Mark Dominik has been about as “hit and miss” as a GM can be. There have been a lot of draft busts and more recently some potentially life-saving draft scores like Doug Martin and Lavonte David. There have been some free agency and re-signing blunders like the contracts handed to Michael Clayton, Quincy Black, and Eric Wright…and again, more recently, the life-saving big money signings of Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. There has even been some terrible luck such as the freak injuries to Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and the more recent set-back injuries to Adrian Clayborn, Carl Nicks, DaQuan Bowers, and Davin Joseph. The 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are seemingly a piece or two away from being a consistent playoff contender and depending on which choices are made, the team could be propelled in the playoffs or find themselves falling back again from a promising season like what we saw in 2011.
After a promising seven win season in 2012, the fate of the franchise hangs in the balance. The Bucs have to decide whether to resign key defenders in Michael Bennett, Ronde Barber, and Roy Miller or to break the bank of big-name, big-money free agents like Dashon Goldson, Sean Smith, and Cliff Avril. They also have to find a smart way to fill the gaping holes at the cornerback position that led the way towards a historically bad pass defense in 2012.
Michael Bennett is the best free agent defensive lineman in the 2012 class. He is one of the most complete 4-3 defensive ends in the game and quite possibly the best run defending 4-3 end out there. It seems people want to fuss over one sack. Bennett finished the 2012 season with a team-leading nine sacks. Managing nine sacks with a practice squad caliber player in Daniel Teo Neisheim filling in for second-year first round draft pick Adrian Clayborn on the other side of the line and the most porous secondary that the league has seen in ages, is pretty damn impressive. I hate to “if, and, or but”…but it’s a foregone conclusion, a logical certainty, that Michael Bennett would have been the “double-digit sack guy” that this city has coveted since the demise of Simeon Rice if Clayborn had been healthy or if the secondary was able to cover anybody, ever. There have been a lot of rumors surrounding the Bennett situation. All of them start with Bennett desperately wanting to remain a Buccaneer and end with Mark Dominik somehow letting him walk out the door. We have heard that Dominik believes in DaQuan Bowers and wants him to get a chance to start. Winning franchises don’t allow a 27-year old proven commodity to walk away while turning to a guy who is one-season removed from the dreaded Achilles tendon tear, facing chronic knee concerns, and fresh off a completely bone-headed arrest. The most recent rumor is that the front office is going to do “whatever it takes” to sign Cliff Avril when the clock strikes 4pm. Cliff Avril is about as good of a pass rusher as Bennett and not in the same universe in terms of stopping the run. Other rumors state that Dominik rolls with Clayborn and Bowers and brings in a veteran, complementary pass rusher like John Abraham or Osi Umenyiora. Again, you don’t allow a 27-year old budding star to walk so you can replace him with someone on their last leg. 4-3 defenses need three really good defensive ends, just ask the New York Giants who know a heck of a lot more about winning football than our current front office. Bringing back Michael would allow us the inside track on signing his brother, coveted free agent tight end, Martellus Bennett, who have both stated their desire to play together. Tight end is probably the biggest hole left to fill on a very promising offense, so Martellus would be a wise addition. I could go on and on all day about why Michael Bennett should remain a Buc, but time will tell on the decision and its payoff.
Just a few days ago we heard about the organization’s eagerness to bring back Ronde Barber for a 17th season in his hall of fame career and his apparent desire to return. The following days have passed without another whisper from either party. Something doesn’t smell right and now maybe our nose has led us to the source of the stink. The Bucs are allegedly the leading and most logical candidate to sign free agent Free Safety Dashon Goldson, who the 49ers cannot afford to re-sign. Goldson has some redeeming qualities. He is a big hitter and is a rangy playmaker. The thing that scares me is that Goldson was beat deep pretty often. Of course, in his time in San Fran he enjoyed the luxury of having a dominant front 7 in front of him. I’m concerned that a switch to a team without a dominant pass rush would expose more of Goldson’s tendency to get beat deep and allow him fewer opportunities to make big plays on the ball. Ronde should be welcomed back with open arms for his 17th season, most importantly because in his first season at his new position in 2012, he enjoyed possibly his best year in half a decade. Barber was voted as a Pro Bowl alternate. Now don’t mistake me for someone who puts a lot of stock in the merits of Pro Bowl voting…but for players in small markets like Tampa Bay, it actually means a lot. How many times have we seen deserving Buccaneers completely ignored during Pro Bowl voting? There are a few reasons for that: nobody outside of Tampa sees them, nobody outside of Tampa cares about them, and nobody outside of Tampa respects them. So when a Buccaneer is actually mentioned in the Pro Bowl conversation, it actually is a very good indication that said player had a very good season. Some have said that Barber’s presence at safety limited our ability to use Mark Barron in the box, where he would be most effective. If this is the case, why was Barber brought back to play next to Barron in the first place? Didn’t the staff know that Barber is best-suited to play near the line of scrimmage and that Barron doesn’t have the coverage skills to cover deep? Why would you spend the 7th overall draft pick on a player that can’t cover? Barron still has time to develop his instincts and coverage skills, but pushing out a Pro Bowl caliber player because your high draft pick can’t fulfill one of his most important responsibilities demanded by his position seems like Dominik would be admitting a glaring weakness in Barron’s play. Also, isn’t Ahmad Black a bright, up-and-coming young player for this team? He made some key plays in 2012 and wasn’t seen making mistakes very often. Black seems like a young home-grown kid that can be coached up to step in for Ronde when his level of play actually does warrant the end of his days in red and pewter. Most importantly, free safety isn’t a need on a team that still has plenty, why would Mark Dominik dump a ton of money into signing a player like Goldson when it would present perhaps a marginal upgrade?
Finally, there are numerous directions that Mark Dominik can go in trying to fill the league’s biggest canyon outside of the one behind center in Arizona, the cornerback position on the Bucs defense. There are some sexy names available like Sean Smith, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DeAngelo Hall, or even Darrelle Revis whose services would require Dominick to pull off a blockbuster trade-and-sign. Many will argue, but I’m here to tell you that all of those players with the exception of Revis are all vastly over-rated. Smith, DRC, and Hall were all amongst the worst players at the position in yards allowed in 2012. They’re all feast or famine players in the form of Aqib Talib and although they aren’t all repeated felons like Talib, they’re all alleged knuckleheads. People know their names because they make highlight reel plays that wind up on ESPN, but apparently those same viewers don’t take notice to the names on the back of the jerseys of the guys getting burnt by receivers on the same highlight reels. Revis is the best player at his position in the league, regardless of whether he’s coming off a serious injury. However, acquiring Revis would require sending valuable picks to the Jets and signing him to a monstrous contract that could hamstring our team in the future. There are quite a few really good cornerbacks available this offseason who don’t have the same sexy hype attached to their name. Brent Grimes from Atlanta, Greg Toler from Arizona, Derek Cox from Jacksonville, Chris Houston from Detroit, or Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh can likely all be had at a bargain compared to the aforementioned over-rated, soon-to-be overpaid free agent counterparts. Mark Dominik could even pull a brave move and steal Sam Shields away from the Packers who has just been given a 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent. You will not find a cornerback in the second round who can come in and help the secondary immediately like Shields is capable of doing. The decision at cornerback is huge…and although some think that the situation can’t get worse than it was in 2012, it can. Throwing $20 million in cap room at two players like Goldson and Rodgers-Cromartie, and finding yourself with yet again one of the league’s worst secondaries and more importantly, on the outside of the playoffs looking in, would be much worse.
I feel very strongly that these coming days will decide the fate of Mark Dominik and the near future of this franchise. I don’t know if Dominik can afford any more major mistakes in free agency, especially at the cornerback position just one season removed from the Eric Wright disaster. I hope and pray that we make the right moves in the 2013 free agency, but there are so many ways it can go wrong. History proves that pushing home-grown talents like Michael Bennett out the door in their prime and breaking the bank on big-money, big-hype free agents who are so awesome that their own teams don’t want them back is not the recipe for a Championship team.